“The point I would make is that the novelist and the historian are seeking the same thing: the truth — not a different truth: the same truth — only they reach it, or try to reach it, by different routes. Whether the event took place in a world now gone to dust, preserved by documents and evaluated by scholarship, or in the imagination, preserved by memory and distilled by the creative process, they both want to tell us how it was: to re-create it, by their separate methods, and make it live again in the world around them.” Shelby Foote, author and historian
Writers, says writer and iron-pumper Ross Mcindoe, often express their craft through the sports they play. Think: Hemingway and boxing, Mishima and karate, John Irving and wrestling. Oliver Sacks, says Mcindoe, found challenge, fulfillment, and self-expression in weightlifting. Like boxing, weightlifting reflects many characteristics of the craft and discipline of writing. Says Mcindoe:
Lifting is at once highly solitary—a solo sport in which most of your time is spent in competition with yourself—and highly communal. Even as each person pursues their own interior quest, the weight room makes everything public.
Sound familiar? We can attend writing workshops, go to critique groups for advice, meet with beta readers and benefit from other people’s expertise, but the act of getting the words right and putting them down is a solitary act. And yet, it’s communal, too, because our ultimate goal is to communicate something meaningful and personal to others.
More important, the lifter or boxer or runner cannot help but compare themselves to others. This can be instructive, but it can be a trap, too, not just for the athlete but for the writer:
When we look at the person lifting next to us, all we see is the weight on the bar and how easily they can move it. We get a rough, visual sense of how their size compares to ours but we don’t see how long they have been training in the sport or how intensely. We don’t see the other factors in their lives—work, health, money—which can contribute or detract from their success.
It’s the same in writing. We see only the results, not the work: snapshots of success with all the necessary failures left out beyond the frame.
Admit it (I will!) — we see other writers and wonder why we can’t get published. Why did such-and-such get a lucrative publishing contract while I can’t even get a poem published in a non-paying literary magazine?
That’s when the sports connection comes in. When you feel that you’re not succeeding, you need to remember that the real contest is the old you versus the you you’re becoming. Like Oliver Sacks realizing he had only fooled himself about what he thought was his best effort in weightlifting, the writer should strive for nothing more than to make himself better than he used to be. Failure is NOT having your manuscript rejected; failure is when you stop trying.
As Sacks realized, there’s always something new we can explore. Try a new genre, read a book on improving your writing style, sharpen your grammatical skills. That’s winning, and there’s nothing quite like discovering how many ways there are to win.
“All the great poets should have been fighters,” Muhammad Ali once said. “Take Keats and Shelley, for an example. They were pretty good poets, but they died young. You know why? Because they didn’t train.”
Ali had a point, but that jab missed its target. Not only were both Keats and Byron handy with their fists, many writers have found themselves attracted to sparring. Rod Serling, who got his nose broken while boxing, wrote the screenplay for Requiem for a Heavyweight, THE classic tale of both the allure and mental and physical hardships of professional fighting.
Josh Rosenblatt, a writer, ex-boxer, and former editor-in-chief of Fightland, suggests the seemingly disparate arts of writing and fighting have much more in common than one would think:
At the root of the sympathetic connection between writing and fighting lies solitude. Fighters have their trainers and cornermen and opponents, and writers have their editors and publishers and subjects, but in the end both are out there on their own, wrestling with themselves every time. Ask any trainer and they’ll say a fighter’s greatest obstacle isn’t his opponent but his own fear. The same is true for writers. The terror of physical destruction and the terror of the blank page are the same thing.
I think all who’ve struggled with the writing craft can identify with that observation.
I’ll add another thought on how the disciplines of sparring and writing can interact and enrich each other. Both help sharpen one’s awareness of the world around us. One cannot enter the ring with a rigid, prefabricated plan that cannot be altered when circumstances change. As General Kutuzov reminded his officers in War and Peace, “Before a battle, there is nothing more important than a good night’s sleep.” Alertness trumps planning in a world full of surprises.
And it’s the same with writing. We need outlines, but as the story evolves and grows, we have to listen to our characters and modify the narrative as circumstances dictate. That’s the key to crafting a story that feels fresh and alive.
Finally, as Ali noted, staying in shape is vital, especially for wordsmiths who sit for hours in front of a computer.
Writers, whether new or seasoned, know well the central struggle of the craft, which is, as Ernest Hemingway put it, “Getting the words right.”
When you nail it, there’s nothing like it. The scene that sizzles, the story that moves readers — that’s what we live and work for as writers.
To me, no other fictional work has better captured the promise — and risk — of language than Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic, “A Wizard of Earthsea,” which tells the story of a boy learning the art of wizardry. The boy’s aunt, a dabbler in spell-making, introduces young Duny to the mystical relationship between the entities of our world and the names by which we know and influence them:
She praised him, and told him she might teach him rhymes he would like better, such as the word that makes a snail look out of its shell, or the name that calls a falcon down from the sky.
“Aye, teach me that name!” he said, being clear over the fright the goats had given him, and puffed up with her praise of his cleverness. …
When he found that the wild falcons stooped down to him from the wind when he summoned them by name, lighting with a thunder of wings on his wrist like the hunting-birds of a prince, then he hungered to know more such names and came to his aunt begging to learn the name of the sparrowhawk and the osprey and the eagle. To earn the words of power he did all the witch asked of him and learned of her all she taught, though not all of it was pleasant to do or know. pp. 4-5
Young Duny (later to be known as Ged) learns that the purpose of developing his power is to enhance and protect life. One of the themes of Le Guin’s riveting tale is the danger that a wizard can misuse that power if it is wielded carelessly.
The point, of course, is that the power of language is not only real, but necessary for a full life as a human being in society and the world. When used thoughtfully, language connects and anchors us. I like the way Joe Moran of Liverpool John Moores University expresses the process in this Literary Hub article:
For the American writing teacher Francis Christensen, learning to write was also about learning to live. He believed that teaching his students how to write a really great long sentence could teach them to “look at life with more alertness.” It should not just be about ensuring that the sentence is grammatically correct, or even clear. The one true aim, he wrote, was “to enhance life—to give the self (the soul) body by wedding it to the world, to give the world life by wedding it to the self.” He wanted his students to become “sentence acrobats” who could “dazzle by their syntactic dexterity.”
“To give the world life by wedding it to the self.” Beautiful. Such moments make the rejections and rewrites worth it.
I’ve long admired the works of Dick Francis, whose horse-racing yarns captivated readers and critics for over four decades. As the title suggests, his books lured readers who may not have been horse enthusiasts (myself included!), but who found themselves snared by a seductive opening. And once lured, readers couldn’t help turning page after page thanks to the author’s passion for his topic, his flawed but resilient characters, and engrossing writing.
As this CrimeReads article explains, Francis authored over 40 international best sellers thanks to his natural talent as a storyteller, remarkable discipline, and a writing routine that included his wife Mary, who not only edited his manuscripts, but performed extraordinary research for his stories, including learning to fly a plane. (?!)
In my opinion, Dick Francis ranks up there with Mickey Spillane not only as a crime writer, but as a master of the first-person point of view. The first person, I think, provides both the flexibility and constraint that lets the writer achieve the depth of intimacy and detail that make a story come alive. By centering the writer around one character’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences, the first person helps focus the writer’s efforts by giving a place and a consciousness on which to anchor that story in both the writer’s and reader’s imagination.
Anthony Bourdain’s devotion to new experiences and authenticity hooked me on his show, “Parts Unknown.” He was no snob; he loved good food wherever he found it, whether he ate it from fine china or paper plates. You could tell his appreciation was genuine, as the above video clearly reveals.
In addition to his career as a chef, Bourdain was a gifted storyteller. If you haven’t read his groundbreaking New Yorker article about the delights and dangers of dining, you really owe it to yourself to read it, savor it, and digest it. That article, a combination exposé and love letter to the restaurant business, showcases Bourdain’s view that eating food is an adventure, as well as the best gateway for experiencing the world. As he once put it, “You learn a lot about someone when you share a meal together.”
Bourdain understood that telling a good story requires revealing one’s inner self, one’s vision of life, an act that takes awareness, guts, and craft. It means the writer must be honest with himself and his reader. It means he shines his light unflinchingly on his characters and follows the action, wherever that may lead. Fearless openness exerts an irresistible draw, as this CrimeReads article explains:
Despite his immense popularity, there was something about Bourdain that made you feel like he was letting you in on a secret. Here was a wildly popular TV host who didn’t condescend to the masses. He conveyed his passions to the viewer, no matter how esoteric. His work felt conspiratorial, pulling back the curtain on the restaurant business and then the world. He shared his personal demons just as he shared his impeccable taste in food, film, and books. We all felt like his travel companions and his confidants. We all felt like his friends.
“Like many science fiction authors, I began by writing short stories, which isn’t the norm any more, at least not among British authors today. Today young authors would rather write novels straight off—and that’s precisely why these novels are mostly so poor. In every job you need a certain amount of practice, whether you’re a violinist or a joiner, and short stories offer writers a wonderful chance to acquire the necessary tools. The Mona Lisa, was, after all, not exactly Leonardo da Vinci’s first painting. In any case I learned what it meant to be a writer by writing short stories; what my weaknesses and strengths are.”J. G. Ballard, author of Crash and Empire of the Sun
I wholeheartedly agree with Ballard here. In fact, I wish I’d read his advice 15 years ago, when I wrote two novels that never found any love in the slush piles. As he said, you have to acquire the necessary tools first, and the only way you’ll do that is to start writing, even if it’s junk. As Chuck Jones once put it, “Every artist has thousands of bad drawings in them and the only way to get rid of them is to draw them out.” Ya gotta pay those dues.
As different as long works are from short ones, both share the same essential features, including:
– sympathetic characters who have agency
– the protag’s goal, or elusive desire
– that thing or person preventing the protag from getting what he desires and
– a satisfactory conclusion.
And of course, to varying degrees, there are those more elusive and more difficult to define factors, such as style, believable dialog, foreshadowing, and all the other literary devices that make the story work.
Even flash fiction must have the same essentials listed above, plus as many of the supporting literary devices you can pack into 1,000 words. And in an age where people are drowning in too much information, it’s vital for a writer to learn how to say more with less. What better place to learn than in short literary works?